Sunday, February 05, 2023

The Front Row with JIM LITKE April 16, 2010

| April 16, 2010 9:00 PM

As if college football's beleaguered referees didn't have enough to worry about, soon they'll be pressed into service as talent judges, too.

It will no longer be enough to decide when taunting crosses the line. Beginning in 2011, the refs will have to decide exactly where the "crime" began.

Under current rules in the NCAA and NFL, if a player commits a taunting foul en route to a score, a 15-yard penalty is assessed on the extra point attempt, 2-point conversion attempt or ensuing kickoff. But the NCAA said Thursday that it wants those penalties assessed from the spot on the field where the violation occurs, even if it means wiping out a touchdown.

Wait until some overzealous ref decides some player slowed down too much, stepped too high, pranced too merrily, looked back over his shoulder too long or launched himself too early into the end zone - and then calls taunting in the final seconds of a game on a hot, boozy afternoon with first place on the line in the SEC. Better yet, he needs a replay to make the determination.

No doubt coaches, players and especially fans will take it all in stride - on their way to storming the field.

"Nothing's perfect," said Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. "I'm sure something, or some situation will come up down the road that's going to cause a lot of people some consternation. And when that happens, we'll look at the rule and decide if it needs adjusting.

"But I don't think the coaches were looking at that aspect. They've been talking about it for a while and decided it should no longer be a part of the game. And this rule is one way to make sure the kids pay attention."

If only it were that simple.

The NCAA rule book tries to be specific on the matter of taunting, and most of the examples offered hardly require interpretation.

Players can't use "threatening or obscene language or gestures," such as "imitating the slashing of a throat." They can't stand over a fallen opponent and beat their chest. They can't point any part of their anatomy or the ball itself at an opponent. Going into the stands is definitely verboten. So is pretending to fire a weapon, and even cupping a hand around the ear, as in the "I-can't-hear-you" pantomime.

But just about everything else falls into a gray area.

Players can get whistled for "obviously altering stride," a penalty previously called only on "Dancing with the Stars." And how about "bowing at the waist after a good play"?

Say some mammoth defensive lineman causes a fumble, then bends over to catch his breath even as the teammate who scooped up the loose ball is running it back for a score? Fair or foul?

"That's a good one," Teaff said. "I imagine it's one of those cases where the refs may have to go back and take another look."

If you've ever attended a game where an excessive celebration penalty came back to bite the offending team, you know how well those things go over. Especially when it happens to the home team. In case you forgot, think back to last season, when Georgia receiver A.J. Green was flagged after catching the go-ahead touchdown late against LSU.

Back judge Michael Watson, the official who called it, thought he saw Green emerge from an end-zone celebration with teammates and gesture to the crowd. The ensuing 15-yard penalty meant Georgia had to kick off from its own 15. LSU's Trindon Holliday returned it 40 yards and two plays later, teammate Charles Scott ran 33 yards to give the Tigers a 20-13 victory.

Refs are already booed, mocked, second-guessed, suspended and worse by everybody from the higher-ups in league offices to the fan still making installment payments on their high-def TVs. And sure enough, the SEC reviewed the same video but from a different angle and concluded that Watson got the call wrong - that Green simply stumbled while trying to leave the celebration.

There was no mention of whether Watson was subjected to disciplinary action, but the league office did review two similar calls from the same game and said both were justified. The second one involved a penalty against Scott after he scored the winning TD, even though Scott maintained he was pointing at the sky to credit "the Lord" and not taunting the Bulldogs' fans.

Woe unto the ref who gets that call wrong the next time.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)

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